The Rodes Administration
Upon the retirement of Guy R. Cowing, the General Motors Institute Board of Regents decided to fill the GMI presidency through a nationwide search outside of the Institute and of equal importance, outside industry.
The man they selected was Harold Potter Rodes. Dr. Rodes had considerable experience and a broad background in teaching and educational administration at other engineering colleges. When Dr. Rodes accepted the appointment to GMI in 1960, he was president of Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. The hallmark of his tenure at Bradley included nurturing a close relationship with local business and industry. As local residents began to realize the value of his educational philosophy, the rapid increase in enrollment necessitated the addition of one new building for five of the six years he was there.
Dr. Rodes was born in 1919 in Morestown, New Jersey, and was graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth College in 1941. During his senior year at Dartmouth, Rodes met his future wife, Edith Wilde, whom he says, “I met when the altos and basses in a South River, New Jersey, Methodist church choir sat conveniently near each other. We had our first date after choir practice.” Eventually the Rodes had five children, including one set of twins.
After a year of high school teaching in Bradford, Vermont, he went on active duty with the U.S. Marines as a lieutenant. He served in an engineering battalion in this country and in the Pacific area until 1943. Following his return from the Pacific Theater, Rodes was assigned as an aircraft drafting instructor at San Diego (1943-1944) and later as a mechanical engineering lecturer and assistant supervisor at the University of California, Berkeley (1944-1945). It was during this time that he began graduate study in engineering and education at U. of California.
From 1945 to 1948, Dr. Rodes was a teaching assistant at Yale University, serving also as assistant director of student personnel at nearby New Haven Junior College. He received a master’s degree from Yale in educational administration in 1946 and his Ph.D. in 1948. From 1948 to 1951 Dr. Rodes was an assistant professor of engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Three years later, in 1951, he was offered his first full-time administrative appointment. He was called to become president of the Ohio College of Applied Science in Cincinnati, a two-year technical institution utilizing the cooperative plan of education.
In 1954 Dr. Rodes was offered the presidency of Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, Thus, at age 34 he was the youngest college president in the United States. The appointment was, no doubt, an expression of confidence in his experience and potential leadership so important to Bradley at the time.
Initially functioning in the capacity of a trouble shooter (the school was in academic eclipse, due in part to a basketball scandal), he was successful in restoring the college to the good graces of academe. Rodes recognized that, as an urban university, Bradley’s major support must come from business and industry; he provided leadership in gearing the programs to their needs, particularly in engineering and business administration. Under his leadership enrollment rapidly expanded, making necessary a major campus expansion program, which included academic buildings, residence halls, and a campus center.
Dr. Rodes thus came to the presidency of GMI from a solid academic background which included the following: college teaching experience that would enable him to understand faculty problems and points of view; a number of industrial contacts; experience in operating a cooperative educational program; and demonstrated success as a college administrator. His duties in Flint began in August 1960.
When Dr. Rodes arrived on campus, the Institute had six educational programs and two distinct educational activities:
- The full-time education of young men (the first woman student enrolled in 1965), who had the potential to assume positions of major responsibility in the engineering and administrative operations of a manufacturing organization.
- The part-time education and training of corporation employees to aid them in preparing for greater responsibility and professional advancement in management and technology.
GMI’s five-year engineering program was unique in several respects. All students enrolled in the program co-oped for all five years. The program aimed to equip well-qualified and highly motivated young men with a sound professional education in either industrial, mechanical or electrical engineering.
High on Dr. Rodes’ list of priorities for his presidency was accreditation, institutional first and then curricular. Each proved to be a struggle because of GMI’s relationship with a single industry, General Motors and a mission statement to provide programs that were different, better and less expensive than could be obtained elsewhere – elements that tained the minds of the visitation team members.
Throughout Dr. Rodes’ tenure, continued careful and studied changes were designed to enhance and enrich the professional engineering and management educational opportunities offered by the college to better meet the needs of the Corporation which it served.
In 1963, the college acquired the former Hasselbring estate, containing 34 acres of land south of Third Avenue. It allowed for the construction of the Campus Center and Men’s Residence Hall, later renamed the Frances Willson Thompson Residence Hall. Soon a modern parking deck south of the residence hall was added.
As the physical campus grew, so too did an updated curricula. Fifty-three outdated courses were dropped and 70 courses added. The Bachelor/Master program was considerably expanded.
Dr. Rodes increased the number of women and minority students enrolled on campus. GMI admitted its first black student in 1963 and first woman student in 1965.
In May 1969, the campus hosted dedication ceremonies for the Campus Center and the Alumni Carillion in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the founding of GMI. GMI fell on tough times in the 1970s during the automotive recession. In 1974, GMI was ordered by GM to lay off about a third of the faculty and staff and cut the student body to about 1,000 students.
His last official day at GMI was June 30, 1976, but he served as President Emeritus until October 1, 1976.
He and his wife, Edith, traveled and spent winters in Florida and summers in northern Michigan. He died unexpectedly at his daughter’s home in Flint on Nov. 29, 1993.
By Richard Scharchburg and University Sources